Sunday, March 01, 2009

Tenochtitlán and Xochimilco: Mexico City before the Conquest

When the Spanish conquistadors got their first look at the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán in 1519, they compared its magnificence to Venice and Istanbul.

They were awestruck at the grand causeways that linked the city in the lake with the mainland. They marveled at the busy traffic of boats on the canals and the skyline traced by grand temples and palaces. Historians estimate that 200,000 to 400,000 people lived there, making it one of the largest cities on earth at that time.

Muralist Diego Rivera´s painting (above) in the National Palace captures what the city must have looked like. Here is a quote from one of Cortez´s party:

When we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments (...) on account of the great towers and cues and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream? (...) I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about.
— Bernal Díaz del Castillo

This was the city of Aztec emperor Moctezuma that Cortez wanted to hand over as a prize to his king, Emperor Charles V (above, a 1930 artistic impression). But in the terrible siege of 1521, Cortez and his army, supported by thousands of the Aztecs´ enemies, ended up destroying most of it.

The Spaniards built their cathedral on the ruins of the Great Temple in the heart of today´s Mexico City. The photo above shows part of the ruins, which were uncovered in the 1970s.

British historian Hugh Thomas has written one of the best histories of this monumental clash of civilizations, Conquest: Cortes, Montezuma and the Fall of Old Mexico.

Xochimilco, more than 100 miles of canals

Just south of Mexico City lies Xochimilco, where you can see some of the last vestiges of the canals that impressed the Spanish conquistadors.

Hundreds or maybe thousands of tourist boats ply the canals. All are poled manually to prevent erosion of the banks. Each boat has a table and chairs in the center for large parties to eat, drink and relax for a couple of hours.

All manner of sales take place. You have vendors of food, toys, drinks and entertainment. For about $5 a mariachi band on a boat will pull alongside and serenade you.

Along the banks are greenhouses and nurseries that produce vegetables and flowers for the metropolitan area of more than 20 million people.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous7:21 PM

    where is all the info??? I'm trying to make a bibliography!